How Long Do We Really Want to Live?

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  • 07/27/2005

(Reprinted with permission from the Wall Street Journal, author: Miles D. White)

What is an extra year of life worth? What would you pay for a new medicine that offered it to you? I think most would answer, “A lot.” For many the answer would be, “Anything.” But what if that new medicine offered only six months? Or 90 days? Would it be worth more if those few months gave you the chance to see a grandson’s birth or a daughter’s wedding?

The fact that we get to ask these tough questions is a function of the advances we’ve made in health care. We have the ability today to save people from more diseases and previously fatal conditions than we’ve ever had. Medical science continues to advance. Life expectancy keeps growing. Quality of life keeps improving.

These innovations can be priceless for those who benefit, and for their families. Priceless, but not without a cost. Medical innovation has been one of the biggest factors in the rapid rise in U.S. health-care spending. Health care used to be inexpensive, because there was so little it could actually do. Doctors made house calls with little black bags; everything they had to offer fit into one. Today, we spend billions developing medical technologies and treatments, and we fill hospitals and pharmacies with life-saving innovations. That’s great news for patients, a category that, at one time or other, includes all of us.

Yet all this innovation has serious implications. Call it health care’s paradox of progress: Our very success in extending life presents daunting economic, political and, ultimately, ethical dilemmas. These go much deeper than current debates about reforming Medicare or allowing drug importation. They involve fundamental and, often, uncomfortable questions: Should advancing the capabilities of medical technology be our top priority? Or is access to medical care more important, so that all citizens can share in a more or less equal level of care? How long do we really want to live? And at what cost?

In short, what do we want from our health-care system? As Americans, we expect it all. We expect: (1) The highest standard of care; (2) continued innovation, and (3) broader access to new technologies at a lower cost. It’s possible to achieve two of these three goals. Which, then, can we do without? Will we accept less than optimal care? Will we accept a significant slowdown in medical progress? Will we say, implicitly or explicitly, “80 is long enough for a person to live?” — or “Sorry, we can treat your disease, but we’re not going to?”

I think most of us would answer these questions with a quick and emphatic “No!” In fact, one of the reasons we chafe under managed care plans is that we don’t like our medical care choices limited. There are those who take a different view. European and other government-run health systems — particularly the British, German, French and Canadian — keep costs down by limiting choices and restricting care.

Some critics contend that the largely private system in the U.S. is more costly and less effective than its government-run counterparts. What goes unremarked is those countries’ reliance on rationing care. They implicitly accept that a life expectancy of about 80 is enough, and that certain people with certain needs are simply on their own. They’re slower to adopt new medical innovations, and more sparing in their use.
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But while we may disagree with some of their conclusions, at least they have asked the tough questions and made the hard choices that a society must. We have shown little or no willingness to even ask ourselves the real questions, let alone do the work to reach a consensus on potential answers that will work for our society. This includes those of us in the business of medical innovation: We must acknowledge that our innovations and their success in treating people pose a dilemma — the more medical innovation extends, improves, and saves lives, the more health-care and other social costs rise.

As a result, we must start to analyze the value to society of innovations. This kind of evaluation is new for us. It also will add time, complexity and cost to our clinical trials. But it will help us make the right decisions. In the past, a cancer compound that extended life only 90 days would have been aggressively pursued, licensed and marketed. In the future, there will be some challenging questions around whether or not the gain provided is worth the cost of development and treatment. These are tough questions. But they’re the ones we must grapple with to produce the answers we really need.

Mr. White, chairman and CEO of Abbott, is former chairman of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.


Center for Medicine in the Public Interest is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization promoting innovative solutions that advance medical progress, reduce health disparities, extend life and make health care more affordable, preventive and patient-centered. CMPI also provides the public, policymakers and the media a reliable source of independent scientific analysis on issues ranging from personalized medicine, food and drug safety, health care reform and comparative effectiveness.

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